Disaster Housing:

FEMA Needs More Detailed Guidance and Performance Measures to Help Ensure Effective Assistance after Major Disasters

GAO-09-796: Published: Aug 28, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2009.

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Concerns over the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) provision of temporary housing assistance, including travel trailers at group sites, after the 2005 hurricanes led to the development of the National Disaster Housing Strategy. GAO was asked to assess (1) the challenges households faced in transitioning to permanent housing, (2) the extent to which FEMA measured its performance in closing and transitioning households in group sites, (3) the strategy's effectiveness in defining FEMA's roles and responsibilities for closing and transitioning households in group sites, and (4) the alternatives to travel trailers in group sites and how well the strategy assessed them. GAO reviewed the strategy and interviewed officials from FEMA, state agencies, and selected nonprofit and housing research groups.

Households living in FEMA group sites encountered various challenges in transitioning to permanent housing. A significant challenge cited by several reports and officials GAO contacted was the availability of affordable rental housing. Other challenges that were cited included insufficient financing to fund repairs of homes, significantly higher insurance premiums, and the availability of full-time employment to support disaster victims' return to permanent housing. FEMA's overall effectiveness in measuring its performance in closing and transitioning households in group sites was limited because the agency's measures do not provide information on program results that would be helpful in gauging whether the program is achieving its goal. Previously, GAO reported that performance measures should be aligned with program goals and cover the activities that an entity is expected to perform to support the purpose of the program. However, FEMA's performance measures for Katrina and Rita group sites primarily describe program outputs and do not provide information on results, such as the timeliness or efficiency of closing group sites and transitioning households into permanent housing. Having such information could help identify potential problems in meeting goals and could be used to make decisions about resources needed and steps to be taken. The National Disaster Housing Strategy broadly defines FEMA's roles and responsibilities for closing group sites and assisting households with the transition into permanent housing. Although the strategy states that FEMA is responsible for closing group sites and assisting households find permanent housing, the strategy does not reflect the key characteristics of effective national strategies and plans that GAO identified in prior work. For example, the strategy does not explain how FEMA will work with other agencies in closing these sites and transitioning households into permanent housing. A lack of a detailed plan that includes information on the steps FEMA needs to take to assist households with transitioning into permanent housing could lead to delays in the future in helping disaster victims return to more stable and conventional living arrangements. Officials contacted and reports reviewed by GAO identified a number of housing options that could serve as alternatives to travel trailers in group sites--for example, providing rental assistance for existing housing and repairing damaged rental housing. However, FEMA's strategy does not assess alternatives, in part, because evaluations are ongoing. Also, it does not provide clear guidance on the specific temporary housing options that states can use instead of travel trailers while FEMA completes these evaluations. Without more specific information on what these temporary housing options are, including alternatives to travel trailers, state officials will not have the information needed to expedite the selection of temporary housing options. As a result, FEMA and the states may not be fully prepared to quickly respond to the temporary housing needs of those displaced by major disasters.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that Congress and others have accurate information about the performance of FEMAs direct housing assistance in group sites, the Secretary of DHS should direct FEMA to develop performance measures and targets that the agency will use for reporting on the results of closing group sites and assisting households with transitioning to permanent housing, and ensure that these measures are clearly linked with FEMA's goals for disaster assistance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its September 2013 response to our recommendation, FEMA stated that it has developed the Housing Operations Management Enterprise System (HOMES), which is used for tracking direct temporary housing assistance. If an applicant requires temporary housing and meets the qualifications, HOMES is used to link applicants with a FEMA-provided temporary housing unit; track the applicant's initial eligibility, continued eligibility, and move-in and move-out dates; and track the unit by type, location, maintenance orders, and disposition. Although FEMA has made a number of improvements, it did not provide information on planned or actual performance measures or targets that they plan to use based on the data that is collected in HOMES to help it gauge whether the program is achieving its goal.

    Recommendation: Because of the multiple agencies with which FEMA must coordinate in delivering temporary housing assistance, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct FEMA to update its planning documents (e.g., the Disaster Housing Community Site Operations Annex of the National Disaster Housing Strategy) to describe how it will work with other agencies in closing group sites and transitioning households into permanent housing, what resources it needs to perform these activities, and how it will deal with specific challenges of a major disaster, such as potential shortages in available permanent housing.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2012, FEMA published the Catastrophic Housing Annex, which provides a scalable approach to how the federal government will support state, local, and territorial temporary housing needs. The goal of the annex is to transition disaster survivors from shelters to temporary housing and/or sustainable housing as quickly as possible following a catastrophic hurricane. The annex describes concepts and options for how FEMA, in collaboration with others, may provide temporary housing to eligible households to help disaster survivors recover and transition into sustainable or permanent housing. For example, for each housing option identified, the annex provides information on the resources it need to implement the housing option, the federal staffing requirements, the limitations associated with the option, and the necessary wrap around services, such as case management, to help disaster survivors identify and achieve appropriate sustainable housing. In addition, now that the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) has been formalized as part of their catastrophic housing response FEMA will have a new way to potentially help transition households who receive direct housing assistance including those in group sites into more permanent housing. This annex represents an important step in providing information to relevant stakeholders about the realistic housing options available after a catastrophic event.

    Recommendation: Because of the multiple agencies with which FEMA must coordinate in delivering temporary housing assistance, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct FEMA to describe clearly in its guidance to states how trailers or other options identified by the states can be deployed when other preferred housing options, such as existing rental housing, are not sufficient after a major disaster.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2012, FEMA published the Catastrophic Housing Annex, which describes the housing options that are available. Specifically, the annex provides detailed summaries of temporary and sustainable housing options, which provide a description of the option, the implementation vehicle needed (such as, whether an existing contract or memorandum of understanding is in place), capacity or availability of the housing unit, limitations and cost of the option, and the type of approval required. In addition, the annex states that housing assistance is typically provided according to the following order of priority: (1) maximize use of available housing resources, (2) augment existing resources, (3) deploy temporary housing resources, and (4) employ atypical housing methods. However, the annex also states that in a catastrophic disaster all option will be considered and that a state's State-led Disaster Housing Task Force (SLDHTF) can use the options presented in this annex to evaluate which options would be best implemented for the specific community affected. It further states that the SLDHTF should recommend appropriate housing options to the Federal Coordinating Officer and the state. According to the annex, in collaboration with the FEMA region, the Federal Coordinating Officer, and the state will determine what options will have the greatest impact on helping disaster survivors and communities recover as quickly as possible and move forward with implementation. The annex provides states emergency agencies with clearer directions on what are viable housing options that could be implemented after a major disaster and thus addresses our recommendation.

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